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Bookword walks in Orkney

My friend Sarah has many good ideas. We have been friends for 40 years but as we live 180 miles apart we have not seen each other since October. Sarah suggested we do a virtual walk, somewhere where there was a route we could follow and visit interesting things along the way. We chose St Magnus’s Way in Orkney: the route is 55 miles long, begins in Egilsay and finishes in Kirkwall on Mainland, following a route themed on the saint’s life. 

So we began our walk on 1st March, spending a little time, virtually, at the bird sanctuary on the small island of Egilsay and looking up the story of the saint’s death, and at photos of his church. Then we followed a rocky path along the north cliffs of the Mainland arriving in Birsay after three days. The next bit of the route was a flat and straight road between some of the lochs that can be found all over Orkney. We arrived in Dounby on 7th March.

By this point my researches had roused in me a desire to visit Stromness (mostly because of the music, Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies which I play on the piano) but also because it has a reputation as a pretty town with a museum that contains a whale’s ear drum. And more than that, we both wanted to visit the Neolithic archaeology of the island, and St Magnus’s Way would not be taking that in. So we diverted to Skara Brae.

And here, my friends prepare yourselves, I sustained an injury by twisting my ankle and breaking it. I was not able to continue the walk. So we consulted on whether to give up, perhaps to start again later. And here was Sarah’s second brilliant idea: we should hunker down in a bothy and read books about Orkney until I was fit to continue.

So we did. We agreed to read Beside the Ocean of Time by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. I ordered a copy of Outrun by Amy Liptrot for Sarah. And I reread the account by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, of a Neolithic village dig on the island of Westray, north of Mainland, in Surfacing.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown 

Thorfinn Ragnarson is a dreamy boy who is unlikely to make anything of himself, according to the school teacher on Norday, a fictitious island in Orkney. His daydreams form the chapters of this book, taking us from the time, long before the Vikings to the death of the island after the Second World War. He explores the rivers of Eastern Europe, just misses the battle of Bannockburn, helps Bonnie Prince Charlie, and with the islanders outsmarts the press gangs of the 18th century.

The island’s unchanging nature, the families, the crofts handed down through countless generations, the myths and legends of the islanders, their history, their rituals and needs are all evoked. The death of the island is sudden and brutal. It is used as an aerodrome in Second World War, and crofts, land, animals and people are erased despite their long history.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown, published in 1994 by Polygon books. 197pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1994.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I can see why this memoir was much lauded when it was first published. The writing is very clear, very unemotional and very sharp. She does not ask you to be sorry for her, although she got herself into terrible difficulties.

The first part of this book describes how the author was plunged into alcoholism, out of control in Hackney in the ‘90s. Eventually she decides she has to sort herself out. She returns to her childhood home in Orkney and through working on her father’s farm, for the RSPB and living more or less in isolation on Papay island through the winter, she achieves two years of sobriety.

The book is full of beautiful descriptions of landscape, finding meaning in astronomy, bird life, farm life and the ways of the islanders. Change, seasons, people’s fallibilities, these are the backdrop to her story. That the farm is situated just north of Skara Brae where I was hunkered down, lends more details to our walk and our delay in the Neolithic village.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016) published by Canongate. 280pp. Shortlisted for the Wellcome and Wainwright Prizes in 2016.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. She also has a way of connecting archaeology with people’s lives in her essays. She writes with great calmness and humility about her visit to the site of an abandoned Yup’iq village in Alaska which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels.

She visits another archaeological site, this one a Neolithic village on the island of Westray, north of Mainland in Orkney. The Links of Noltland are in danger from lack of funding. The dig has found a large community, built over centuries from stone, recently uncovered by the winds. If funds run out the elements will destroy what remains of settlements built on the remains of the homes of previous generations. You can find the link to my post on Surfacing here.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie, published in 2019 by Sort of books. 247pp

Now my ankle is good enough to make a slow progression towards The Ring of Brodgar, on its isthmus between two lochs: Stenness and Harray. We pass broch, tumuli, stone rings and cairns. This land has been occupied for perhaps 8000 years. Before the Vikings arrived, Neolithic and Bronze age peoples came and lived, farming and raising cattle, living among the seals, the migrating birds and on the edge of the sea. I move slowly with a stick and my friend for support.

And Sarah writes:

One of the most difficult aspects of the last year has been not walking with you Caroline. I value these days so much, for the sense of exploration and movement, and for the way we pace our talking along with our walking, sometimes offloading, sometimes musing, always laughing and learning.

So a virtual journey seemed like a good idea if it was all we could do. I’m not on the whole a great follower of travel guides, or reader of travel books, but we knew we needed a route where we could find views and terrain described. I must say though that it was photos and the BBC 4 archaeology programme that really captured my imagination at first, not the written word.  I quickly tired of St Magnus who seemed to have done not much to be sanctified and remembered so long. 

In a way your injury, forcing us to rest at Skara Brae, was a happy accident. Well, not happy obviously but a useful turn of events. I started to feel the wind, smell the sea and hear the birds right on the edge of this tiny island. Farewell to Stromness captures the excitement perfectly. Beside the Ocean of Time mostly disappointed me (I found the dreaming child so dull) but it does paint a picture of Orkney not as remote but as linked, through its widely-travelling inhabitants, to many world events and historical moments.

Mostly when I travel, not virtually but actually, I am interested in how people live in this place which is new to me. Literally how do they survive and thrive, and how do landscape and human behaviour interact here? What is important to them, and what isn’t? I am half way through The Outrun and although this is mainly the story of one woman’s journey into and eventually out of self-destruction, I’m appreciating a much broader impression of the physical and emotional context of life on Orkney. Sea and sky and land of course, and enviable familiarity with the sight and sound of so many different kinds of bird. But interwoven with all the natural beauty and the strong sense of community, grimmer pictures are painted of life for individuals and families: the smell of the ferry, the old freezer left to rust in the farmyard, her father’s caravan home, her job cleaning the accommodation for oil terminal staff, houses and farms left deserted and rotting away, boats breaking on rocks. It all feels very real and true, and quite different from a travel book.

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In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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